The Curious Meaning of ‘Mad World’ by Tears for Fears

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Two extremely popular musical acts who emerged in Britain in the 1980s owed their names to the work of the American psychologist Arthur Janov (1924-2017). Janov’s 1970 book The Primal Scream gave its name to a Glasgow band formed in 1982, while a band formed down in Bath in southern England a year earlier named themselves Tears for Fears in honour of Janov’s method of psychotherapy.

Tears for Fears’ debut album, The Hurting, was released in 1983. Many of the songs on the album were influenced by Janovian psychology, and one of the most prominent themes of The Hurting is childhood trauma and suffering: ‘hurting’, in other words. The 1982 single ‘Mad World’, the most famous song from that album, reflects this theme.

‘Mad World’: summary

The song was written by band member Roland Orzabal in an hour or two in Orzabal’s flat above a pizza place, fellow band member Curt Smith (who sings the lyrics on ‘Mad World’) told the Boston Globe.

‘Mad World’ comprises two verses and a chorus repeated three times. The first verse focuses on the people around the speaker: these people are trapped in a mundane and repetitive routine, the daily grind of living, and they look worn-out as a result.

The image of tears filling up their glasses is a masterstroke: because of the eyes summoned by ‘tears’, we might expect ‘glasses’ to mean ‘spectacles’ here, but the idea of filling up glasses summons beer glasses. (This is confirmed by the speaker’s desire to drown his ‘sorrow’ later in the verse.)

The chorus highlights the conflicted attitude of the speaker. It is at once funny and sad that the recurring dreams he has, in which he is dying, are the best dreams he’s ever had. What does that suggest to him about his life? (The interpretation of dreams, which Sigmund Freud described as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ because dreams are the chief way our unconscious attempts to communicate with us, has long been a core part of psychotherapy.)

And the speaker finds everything overwhelming, not least because the world around him appears to be mad. What hope of finding one’s personal sanity, then, when everyone around him is going around in circles, performing the same tasks but ‘going nowhere’, as the first verse had it? This is why the world is a ‘mad world’.

The second verse focuses on childhood, and leads us to wonder, retroactively, whether the first verse also offered us a child’s-eye view of the adult world. Children look forward to their birthdays coming around every year because it’s the one day that breaks the monotonous cycle, the clocklike regularity of school, where they are told to sit down and shut up and listen to the teacher.

And what’s more, this teacher looks right through the speaker: it’s as if he’s invisible. And none of the other schoolchildren know him, so he feels alone: that alienating experience of being surrounded by people and yet feeling lonely all the same.

‘Mad World’: meaning

‘Mad World’ is a song about childhood suffering, loneliness, invisibility, and the drab, repetitive nature of most people’s lives. At its heart, life appears to have no meaning: people go to work, children go to school, but everything they do seems ultimately pointless.

No wonder the speaker concludes that it’s a ‘mad world’. In 2004, Curt Smith called the song a ‘voyeur’s song’, because it’s a teenager’s perspective on the mad world around him, a world he is watching as a detached and bewildered observer, we might say.

The lyrics to ‘Mad World’ are brave in that they risk bathos in order to achieve profundity. When T. S. Eliot wrote of a crowd flowing over London Bridge, ‘so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’, he did the same in ‘rhyming’ the phrase ‘so many’ with ‘so many’.

The opening ‘faces’/‘faces’ non-rhyme in ‘Mad World’ is another example, perfectly capturing the meaningless repetitiveness of the child’s daily experiences.

The word ‘halogeon’ which appears in the penultimate line of the song’s lyrics, as they were printed in the sleeve notes to The Hurting, was Roland Orzabal’s own coinage. What is a ‘halogeon world’? Or is this word a misprint?

The neologism has baffled listeners and critics ever since, but one interpretation of the word’s meaning would be that it refers to a world lit by ‘halogen’ lamps, or artificial lighting. This conveys the idea that the ‘mad world’ of the song is both fake and oddly unreal, perhaps even surreal. The elongation of ‘halogen’ into ‘halogeon’, as well as teasing out a latent pun (‘geo’ meaning ‘earth’, or, if you like, ‘world’), renders this unreality and strangeness even more acute.

However, the word ‘halogeon’ does appear to have been a printing error (or transcribing error?). The word should have read ‘Halargian’, a kind of in-joke referencing a fictional planet which Orzabal, Smith, and their friends gave the name of Halargia.

Personally, we prefer the erroneous version that’s printed in the sleeve notes to the album.


‘Mad World’: Michael Andrews and Gary Jules cover version

The cover version of ‘Mad World’, recorded by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the 2001 film Donnie Darko, enjoyed popular success, but was regrettable. It robbed the song of the distinctive industrial sounds which make the original so haunting and effective; the ‘haunting’ quality of the Andrews-Jules version is cheaply bought, and thus trades in cheap emotions.

But more regrettable still is the legacy of that cover version of ‘Mad World’: endless cover versions of 1980s classics performed to dull piano accompaniment with half-asleep vocals, as if the singers themselves aren’t convinced by their travesty of a pop classic either. Ellie Goulding, Lily Allen: yes, we’re talking to you, but also countless others.

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